Series Introduction: Material Culture

By September 2, 2013

Though there’s a tendency in many religious circles to think of materialism, of owning objects, as something less-than-good, an attachment to the world perhaps, or a clear failure to follow Jesus’ directives in Luke 18:22,[1] objects aid religiosity in singularly effective ways. Being religious encompasses much more than scripture mastery, Sunday school lessons learned and internalized, the ability to recite a certain creed or, in a Mormon context, to be able to affirm the Articles of Faith or pass a temple recommend interview. And while material culture has a societal function in general,[2] material culture that expresses religion has its own special signifiers. Material culture of all kinds helps people learn the specific discourse and narratives of their religious communities, as new generations relearn symbolic systems through seeing, touching, and doing. If we look at specific Christian images, we see how they can help shape religion: a Catholic might hang a crucifix, while a Protestant sets more stock in a lavish family Bible, and a Mormon has the “Proclamation on the Family” displayed. Whatever the object, it is used to construct and reinforce meaning. The process of constructing meaning is a ecumenical one and crosses faith lines quite easily, yet the meaning encoded into the object is highly specific. This explains why a Catholic First Communion at seven years old is at the same time similar to a Mormon baptism at age eight (the white clothes, the age at which the ritual happens, the solemnity and preparation) and yet so very different for the participants themselves.

Relationships are very important when it comes to the workings of material culture. In a Christian context, material culture can help mediate the relationship between individuals and Christ, through art work allowing one access to an image of Christ, for instance,[3] but also between individuals themselves. Giving religiously-themed material culture to another person affirms community affiliation and shared values. Giving a friend Tennis Shoes among the Nephites for his birthday, instead of Treasure Island, or any other secular novel, for instance, is a clear sign that both you and he place worth in the culture concerned and helps categorize the Mormon experience for those in the know.[4]

But another major use of material culture, and one particularly important to the Mormon experience, I would argue, is creating and sustaining collective memory. Spaces, images, gestures, objects, all help us embody memory and recreate an authentic past. Objects work very well to mediate religious memory quite simply because they are highly visible assertions of lineage and help create an unbroken and personal narrative of the past. I’ll share a personal story to illustrate my point. As a Protestant, I technically have little use for rosaries. Yet one of my most prized religious possessions is my grandmother’s rosary, together with her old prayer book that holds the First Communion notices of my extended family and funeral notices of people I never met and may not have even heard of. Touching these objects, praying with them, directly connects me to the community of believers and places my own faith into a historical tradition so much older than I am (especially important to a convert like me). As scholars with an interest in Mormon history, I’m sure we’ll all aware of how important history is to the Mormon faith, and I hope we’d be loathe to dismiss material culture as just “stuff,” instead recognizing the importance of collective memory, and the role that material culture plays, in Mormon culture.

Mormonism may seem to be a rather low-church faith on Sunday, but material culture abounds in a Mormon context. Temples are extensively decorated and feature landscaped grounds with highly symbolic functions. Mormons may have food storage hidden in their home and eat Mormon foods like funeral potatoes.[5] Garments influence which clothes are bought and worn and serve as an internal as well as external reminder of one’s faith. Mormonism and popular culture interact in various ways, as a quick glance at Pinterest or other social media will show you. And although Pinterest may be a recent phenomenon, the importance of material culture in Mormon culture is not.

This month at Juvenile Instructor, we’ll be examining the power and function of all kinds of objects, exploring how material culture shapes and is shaped by Mormonism and acts to bring the past into the present and perhaps even the Mormon story onto a more global stage. I hope you’ll join us for what will likely be a fascinating and informative as well as entertaining month.


[1] When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ?There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.? (NRSV)
[2] For more on this fascinating topic, see E. Frances King, Material Religion and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 2010) and Ian Woodward, Understanding Material Culture (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007).
[3] See Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale UP, 1995), especially the section on the Protestant relationship to both Hofmann’s and Sallman’s Head of Christ paintings.
[4] I grew up in an nonreligious family (former Catholics, my parents held the view that spirituality was something that happened to other people), and after I converted to a mainline Protestant church, I remember being inundated with Christian gifts from my new Christian friends and amazed (and shocked, at times) at the sheer volume of Christian goods and the subcultures to which they referred. I also remember it setting me apart from my family, as they had no knowledge of nor use for these items.
[5] This is assuming for simplicity’s sake that there is such a thing as a Mormon food culture.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Really looking forward to this month. Think it will be a great series.

    Comment by NatalieR — September 2, 2013 @ 10:58 am

  2. Thanks for the great intro to the month, Saskia!

    Comment by David G. — September 2, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

  3. Thanks for the intro, Saskia! I’m really looking forward to this!

    Comment by Christopher — September 2, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

  4. Sounds great! Thanks for the intro!

    Comment by Brant E. — September 2, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

  5. Sounds like fun!

    Comment by WVS — September 2, 2013 @ 10:12 pm

  6. Good stuff!

    Comment by Joel — September 3, 2013 @ 3:24 am

  7. […] this month?s discussion of material culture I want to contribute an example of a (presumed) Mormon giving Book-of-Mormon names to flowers. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Daylilies with Mormon Names — September 15, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

  8. […] to respond here, as part of both our ongoing Responses series and as an appropriate contribution to our look at Mormon material culture this […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Responses: Paul Harvey and Edward Blum respond to Noel Carmack’s Review Essay in the Journal of Mormon History — September 24, 2013 @ 9:40 am


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